Environmental activist Dan Haifley argues that Monterey Bay residents should care about and support the potential designation of tribally nominated Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, covering waters off San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties. If approved by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Association, the new sanctuary will provide the missing link in a chain of protection from Mendocino to Santa Barbara.
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In a matter of weeks, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency that oversees the national marine sanctuary program, will release its blueprint for the tribally nominated Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary off San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties.
After a period of public comment, the plan will then be revised by NOAA before Congress reviews and the administration approves final designation, in 2024, backers hope. National marine sanctuaries were established in 1972 to promote education, resource protection and research within culturally and scientifically significant areas within the U.S. ocean and Great Lakes.
If approved as the fifth marine sanctuary off California, it would complete a continuous zone of protection from Mendocino to Santa Barbara, with an approach that acknowledges Indigenous Californians’ approach to conservation.
It sounds wonderful, you say, but will it make a difference to Monterey Bay and the rest of California? In a word, yes.
The ocean produces half the world’s oxygen produced by plant life, absorbs excess atmospheric carbon, and supplies food, but it is under stress from ocean acidification from climate change, and pollution. Marine sanctuaries are powerful tools for protecting biodiversity and fighting climate change.
Continuous protection from Mendocino to Santa Barbara
Waters from Point Arena in Mendocino County south to Cambria in northern San Luis Obispo County are protected by the Greater Farallones, Cordell Bank and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries. Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary protects the sea surrounding its namesake islands, though there’s offshore oil nearby in the Santa Barbara Channel.
Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary would fill the gap between those sanctuaries, providing a chain of protection along much of the California current, productive waters that host a rich array of wildlife, including the migration route for the California gray whale.
It would stretch 156 miles from Cambria in northern San Luis Obispo County to a point east of Point Conception in Santa Barbara County. More comprehensive than earlier proposals, the first being a sanctuary around Morro Bay, it would take in 7,000 (as opposed to Monterey Bay’s current 6,094) square miles, including the underwater Rodriguez Seamount and deep Arguello Canyon, and a region of year-round upwelling of nutrient-rich cold waters feeding an amazing array of life.
It is the latest in a series of proposals made over the years, starting with a proposal to protect Morro Bay Estuary.
It would protect sacred Indigenous cultural sites, prevent offshore oil exploration and drilling, and be done in collaboration with a centuries-old First Peoples conservation framework. The worldview and methods practiced for thousands of years by First Peoples are rooted in the natural world we inhabit, a needed tool for our survival today.
Continuous protection will also enable marine sanctuary teams to work with each other and their partners to, for example, restore healthy kelp forests, which not only store excess carbon, but also dampen erosion of shorelines and provide habitat for species such as rockfish, sea otters and crabs.
An idea reimagined
The first time I heard a proposal for marine sanctuary status for San Luis Obispo and a portion of Santa Barbara counties was in front of a packed hearing on the proposed Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary at the Monterey Conference Center in 1990. San Luis Obispo County planner Jon Von Reis made a dramatic proposal to extend its boundary more than 80 miles south to Point Sal in northern Santa Barbara County.
A hush fell over the room. The coalition of environmental groups I co-led sought protection for waters north of Santa Cruz and south of Marin County, and we also knew that San Luis Obispo County was a high-value target for offshore oil development.
As I told reporter Jim Carnal of the Bakersfield Californian, the idea was opposed by U.S. Rep. Bill Thomas of Bakersfield, who represented San Luis Obispo County. So, when Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary was designated in 1992, it covered waters from Marin County, south to Santa Rosa Creek in northern San Luis Obispo County. But the ocean to its south remained vulnerable.
Two decades later, NOAA invited communities to propose strategic ocean and Great Lakes areas to receive protected status as marine sanctuaries. Northern Chumash Tribal Council Chair Fred Collins responded by nominating Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary. The council’s partners were the Surfrider Foundation – San Luis Obispo chapter and the Sierra Club’s Santa Lucia chapter.
The coalition and their allies worked hard and kept the faith until the Biden-Harris administration and NOAA, with encouragement from U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal, began the designation process in November 2021. Collins passed away just before the designation process began and his daughter, Violet Sage Walker, became chair of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council and continued its focus on the sanctuary.
Over 14,000 comments came in and influenced the agency’s decision to keep the nomination alive in 2020, five years after the nomination had been made. A year later, twice as many arrived during the first step of the public designation process.
NOAA is expected to release a preliminary plan and environmental impact report for the proposed sanctuary soon, and final designation should occur next year.
The Biden-Harris administration and the California Energy Commission are promoting renewable energy for our state’s electric grid. Waters west of the southern part of Monterey Bay and the northern area of the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary — southern Big Sur and San Simeon, Cambria and Cayucos — will host a 399 square mile area for floating offshore wind platforms, for which a federal lease sale occurred last December.
Among the infrastructure needed are mooring cables to secure the platforms to the sea floor, and electric lines to bring electric power onshore. These will affect habitats, wildlife, fishing and adjacent communities, which will need to be studied and mitigated.
As Walker wrote in a Nov. 19 San Luis Obispo Tribune opinion piece, “The Northern Chumash Tribal Council advocates for marine conservation, equitable mitigation measures and fair community benefits. We believe offshore wind must coexist and cooperate with marine protections, and we see this as a unique opportunity for a collaborative effort, not a combative one.”
The Monterey Bay and proposed Chumash Heritage national marine sanctuaries would provide the tools for mitigation. In one example, when a cargo container toppled from the M/V Med Taipei during a February 2004 storm and fell to a depth of 4,200 feet below the surface of the Monterey Bay sanctuary, NOAA figured out who owned the vessel and was responsible. Negotiations between federal lawyers and the owner of the vessel resulted in a financial settlement which is now being used for sanctuary projects.
Fighting to add Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary to our nation’s network of 15 sanctuaries and two marine national monuments will help Monterey Bay, California and our planet. Get involved and help.
Dan Haifley was the first director of O’Neill Sea Odyssey and Save Our Shores, and currently is secretary of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Foundation board. He can be reached at email@example.com. His previous piece for Lookout, on mitigating climate change and kelp forests, ran in January.